By John Kelman
Sometimes tight-knit teams like Donald Fagen and Walter Becker — better known as Steely Dan — make it difficult to determine what each individual brings to the table. It’s no secret that Becker and Fagen have strong jazz sensibilities, not to mention an affection for Tin Pan Alley, having started out as staff writers for ABC Records before realizing their music was too sophisticated for the artists they were writing for. But Fagen’s previous solo albums — Nightfly (Reprise, 1982) and Kamikiriad (Reprise, 1993) — and Becker’s 11 Tracks of Whack (Giant, 1994) suggest that Becker is the more acerbic and idiosyncratic of the pair.
That’s not to say that Fagen’s new album, Morph the Cat, is filled with anything resembling joyous optimism. Fagen addresses topics like homeland security (“Security Joan”), the current administration (“Morph the Cat”) and cults (“Mary Shut the Garden Door”), as well as personal issues like impending mortality (“Brite Nightgown”). The ghost of Ray Charles even shows up on the reharmonized minor blues of “What I Do.” Nor has Fagen lost his sardonic way with words. Who else could come up with a phrase like “Rabelaisian puff of smoke”?
But Fagen grooves just a little deeper on his own than he does with Becker, giving the darker subject matter a veneer that has you bopping your head along, even as he talks of alien invasion and death — a quality that has always made both his and Steely Dan’s albums so intriguingly paradoxical. Ignore the lyrics and the polished grooves are so infectious and the playing so tasty that Fagen’s sharp wit and rich jazz harmonies become obscured by the music’s sheer visceral nature.
The pieces are short-lived — these are pop tunes after all — but there are plenty of outstanding solos to keep the often six to seven-minute songs interesting. Walt Weiskopf’s lithe tenor elevates the sneaky “Black Cow”-like funk of the title track and the more uptempo “H Gang”; Fagen’s melodica features on the down-and-dirty “Mary Shut the Garden Door”; Marvin Stamm’s trumpet carries the breezier “The Great Pagoda of Funn”; and Howard Levy’s harmonica adds colour to “What I Do.”
Morph the Cat is also Fagen’s most guitar-centric record — in or out of Steely Dan — since the Dan’s classic Royal Scam (MCA, 1976). No less than six guitarists, including mainstays Jon Herington, Wayne Krantz and Hugh McCracken, deliver everything from clean singing lines to grungy dirt and, on “H Gang,” a tone harkening back to the classic voice-box solo on “Haitian Divorce.”
It’s true that Becker and Fagen’s easy-on-the-ears approach has contributed to the evolution of today’s contemporary jazz radio stations, where the agenda is clearly “jazz lite,” and Morph the Cat will undoubtedly get airplay on these stations. But there’s always been something more authentic and physical about Fagen and Steely Dan’s records. In terms of product placement, Morph the Cat may be undeservedly lumped in with smooth jazz, but make no mistake: this is an album that deserves serious consideration for its topical lyrics, natural grooves, outstanding performances and, ultimately, sheer humanity.